Can Live Crisis Maps Help Prevent Mass Atrocities?

Live crisis maps tell stories, hopefully compelling stories the last chapters of which have yet to be written. To paraphrase my New York Times colleague Anand Giridharadas: They used to say that history is written by the victors. But today, before the victors win, if they win, there is a chance to scream out with a text message, a text message that will not vanish, a text message that will remain immortalized on a map for the world to bear witness. What would we know about what passed between Turks and Armenians, Germans and Jews, Hutus and Tutsis, if every one of them had had the chance, before the darkness, to declare for all time: “I was here, and this is what happened to me”?

Anand recently sat down with Elie Wiesel to talk about the power of bearing witness. “If one idea has animated Mr. Wiesel’s life, it is that of the power of memory: memory gives culture, he likes to say; memories spoken and shared can prevent remembered tragedies from recurring.”

This afternoon, I sat down with someone who recounted to me in graphic detail the absolute horrors he witnessed during weeks of relentless violence in Central Asia less than a year ago. Survivors uploaded their videos and pictures of the targeted violence but they did so weeks after the murders and uploaded them on several different websites, making the aggregation of evidence difficult. The international media remained unresponsive which hampered advocacy efforts. The remaining survivors were so desperate for attention that they even painted SOS in large letters on nearby roads in hopes that passing helicopters or airplanes would come to the rescue. But help from the skies above never came.

Would a live crisis map have made a difference? Would a single, public repos-itory of geo-referenced evidence mapped in real-time and multi-media format have mattered?  There are of course those who still ask, “What’s the point of putting dots on a map? How’s that supposed to change anything?” As my Ushahidi colleague Brian Herbert likes to respond, “Well then, what’s the point of having words on a page, huh? How are words going to change anything?” They say that the pen is mightier than the sword. Can the live crisis map be even mightier than the pen? If a picture is worth a 1,000 words, what is a live map worth? Will all live maps have the desired impact? Of course not, just like not every letter or book ever written has had significant impact.

But some live crisis maps may create unprecedented pressure to respond in a more timely manner. As my colleague Olga Werby recently noted,

“Mr. Moreno-Ocampo, the ICC [International Criminal Court] Prosecutor, sited Facebook and other social media as key influence in ICC taking action in Libya: ‘[Facebook and social-networking] triggered a very quick reaction. The [United Nations] Security Council reacted in a few days; the U.N. General Assembly reacted in a few days. So, now because the court is up and running we can do this immediately,’ he said. ‘I think Libya is a new world. How we manage the new challenge—that’s what we will see now.” (CNN World News article: “Gadhafi faces investigation for crimes against humanity” by Atika Shubert (watch the video at 1:40), published on March 3, 2011.) Mr. Moreno-Ocampo talks about sea-change in the world’s reaction time to crisis due to the effects of ICT!”

In his recent piece on “The Political Power of Social Media“, Clay Shirky noted that access to conversation is more important, politically, than access to information. He writes that change in behavior does not come from mass media alone. Rather, it is a two-step process where the second, social step, stems from the conversations that happen between family, friends and colleagues about new information related by the media. This is when political change becomes possible. I have witnessed first hand how crisis maps catalyze conversations and prompt questions about the patterns that materialize on the maps, the actions of a government or secret police, the reasons for the status-quo, etc.

After his conversation with Elie Wiesel, Anand wrote the following:

“The debate has tended to dwell on the question of whether all this overseas digital mirroring of a crisis, especially when the Internet is inaccessible or censored in the nation in crisis, is of any use to those on the ground. But what is often missing from the debate is the idea of bearing witness: the notion, as Mr. Wiesel, a survivor of the Auschwitz and Buchenwald concen- tration camps and a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, once put it, that an experience like the one he endured ‘cannot stay with me alone. It must be opened, it must become an offering, it must be deepened and given and shared.’ Today, at age 82, he is a trace removed from the latest technology trends, but he was more vigorous than many half his age in seeing a place for technology in tragedy. It is partly that the sufferings of others are available to much of the world in real time today, he said, and partly that the multiplication of avenues to publish and to access what others publish makes people less confined to particular sources:

‘Since they come from a variety of sources, from a variety of people, representing all ideologies and all sensitivities, we know. We cannot not know,’ Mr. Wiesel said.  ‘Whether you want it or not,’ he added a moment later, ‘we are witnesses.’ Because of technology, and because of the progress made in technology, especially in the field of communication, no one has any excuse anymore to say, ‘I don’t know; I didn’t know; I wasn’t aware’.”

After listening to the horrors that happened in Central Asia, I reached for my laptop and turned to the live Crisis Map of Libya. The person who had just recounted some of the atrocities he had witnessed had never seen a map quite like this one nor heard of Ushahidi. I explained to him the range of possible features and the different ways that people around the world have used the mapping platform over the past three years.

I felt some hope from my interlocutor, he was excited but I could tell that—like myself—he was also trying not to get his hopes too high. But there are definitely grounds for hope. He said something like this had never been tried in his part of the world before. Will it work? There’s only one way to find out. The last chapters of this story have yet to be written.

13 responses to “Can Live Crisis Maps Help Prevent Mass Atrocities?

  1. Carolyn Clark Campbell

    ‘We are witnesses.’ And you are revolution! And appearance to iRevolution!


  2. I *believe* it was Arthur C. Clark said satellite imagery would stop genocide because the whole word could see the burnt cities. Well, imagery hasn’t helped southeastern Azerbaijan or Darfur or North Koreans. Don’t hold your breath on live crisis mapping (though it does help get the word out and may spur somesort of action, but stopping or preventing, no).

    • Many thanks for your comment. It wasn’t Arthur C. Clark:

      Will Using ‘Live’ Satellite Imagery to Prevent War in the Sudan Actually Work?

      You’ll note from the above post that I am somewhat skeptical about that particular approach. Crisis mapping is actually different but I am not at liberty at this point to provide more details on the actual project I refer to in my most recent post. I can assure you there’s a lot more to it than what I describe. On a personal note, I have worked in the field of conflict early warning and rapid response for many years and would have turned down the opportunity to work on this project immediately if I thought it was just more of the same failed approach. Does this mean the project will be successful? Like I said, it hasn’t been tried in this area before, but has shown some promise in other regions, and I would add does not come at the price tag of using satellite imagery but instead builds local capacity. I’d personally prefer to try something to mitigate the violence directly then simply sit back and just write about it.

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